The Least Stressful Job for 2013? A Real Look at Being a Professor in the US

The brain trust at CNBC just published this little fluff piece about the least stressful jobs for 2013 and of course the least stressful job was being a university professor. Their rationale? There are no physical demands, no deadlines, no environmental condition hazards, we don’t put our lives on the line, nor are we responsible for other peoples’ lives. I will grant that we’re not crab fishing on the Bering Sea nor making command and control decisions on the front lines of a military conflict; however, this feeds the myth that being a professor in the US is like living in a plush ivory tower disconnected from the world — holding class like we’ve all seen in the movies. It’s also easier to dismiss us in a whole lot of different ways when this myth is perpetuated.

Let’s cut through the BS — being a professor in the US for the first 7 years is like being an indentured servant … and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have a ‘good’ tenure track position. There are different experiences in being a professor, but let me give you a bit of a walk through our world. I sincerely hope that some of my friends will also add their experiences onto this.

Beginning the “Life of Luxury”

Many of us in academia don’t come from backgrounds of extreme privilege — what I mean by this is that loads of us finish our Ph.D.’s (which is what you have to have to be a ‘regular’ professor) with between $75,000 and $160,000 in debt — and the debt mountain is enormous for those coming from lower income families. The median salary in this little fluff piece puts what professors make at over $60,000 per year. Silly story.  The reality is that in most disciplines, a freshly minted Ph.D. is going to be making $45,000-$55,000 per year (depending on geographic location and field). So, we start from a place of financial trauma — if we don’t find a permanent job, we’re still going to owe Uncle Sam our pound of flesh.

Why did we do it? I think this is a question most of us ask ourselves… sometimes often. The two realities are #1  that most of us who are professors are there by choice — this isn’t the ‘fall back’ career and #2 we’re typically really smart people**(editing note at the end) (the PhD and doing original research is kind of a baseline test for that 🙂 ). I know, that’s probably not PC to say but it’s true.

Yet, why would we hamstring our lives this way? Well … lots of reasons, but most of us just frankly like the notion of research, teaching, and being a part of the intellectual endeavor. And we’re saps for it. There is a point that we realize we’re idiots for committing ourselves to a life of functional poverty (because seriously, we’re never going to pay off our student loans), but we still tell ourselves it’s worth it and there are good arguments to be made for the financial sacrifice depending on what we want out of life. It’s just that I don’t know that we all really ‘get’ what it’s like before we start. Why? Look at the silly story — most people just don’t understand what being a professor entails on a daily basis.

But I get ahead of the story — we have to find a job. Well, one of the realities since the economic crash of 2008 is that “real” academic jobs are getting harder and harder to come by both because there are too many new Ph.D.’s and because many universities’ endowments, state funding, and/or giving campaigns have been damaged. Not only that, but many at state universities haven’t seen appropriate cost of living raises for the last 4 years. What does this mean in a practical sense? Lots more applicants than jobs. For example, last year when we were interviewing for a position very late in the year we had amazing candidates because they were new grads who couldn’t find jobs — they were losing out to professors just looking to change jobs who were willing to take “entry” level jobs just so they could make the move. That was great for us, but ridiculous in the job search process.

The “Least Stressful” Job

Now, there are disciplines whose student to professor (for advising) ratio is quite low … Departments of English, Philosophy, Math, and the like who ‘make their money’ because they’re essential parts of a liberal arts curriculum and so each year they fill a lot of classes with students who have to take ‘required’ courses. However, if you happen to be in large majors (e.g., my own in Communication is just one of many that are either growing or already very large at most colleges & universities), the student to professor ratio is actually quite high… so let me walk you through the life of the “Assistant” Professor (i.e., the lowest level of the tenure track faculty, not tenured, and could be released just because they don’t like your socks and you don’t have a lot of legal recourse absent documented discrimination… kind of like working in a ‘right to work’ state) by sharing what my life looked like for the last 3 years. I was at a small ‘teaching’ college, but one that is beginning to place more emphasis on building Master’s programs and research. This ‘suited me’ because while I like teaching, I liked the notion of a balance between teaching and research.

Year One. ‘Breaking You In’

In your first year, you might get a course release … so instead of teaching 3 or 4 classes in an academic semester you might teach 2 or 3. This is a matter of negotiation. Doesn’t sound too bad does it? So what does it mean to teach a class? Well, as a brand new professor in a department, you’re probably having to put together your classes for the first time. So, what does the first year look like?

    •  You have to write your syllabus and all of the course materials (e.g., assignment descriptions, etc.). This will typically take 30-60 hours per class before the semester even begins — for the brand new prof, that’s 90-240 work hours (3-6 weeks) of UNPAID work before you even start your job. 
    • Preparing lesson plans for 16-32 class sessions per class that you teach. If you’ve never taught the class, you have to write the lectures, which takes me about 3 hours (and I’m actually pretty fast, but expect a high level of quality out of the lecture and the visuals) per lecture. Multiply that by 3, so you’re talking about 15-20 hours per week spent on class prep (Yes, this post requires simple mathematics… keep in mind I’m a social scientist, so the math won’t be too complex).
    • You have to attend each of your classes — I know this seems obvious, but hell… it adds to the math. So, that’s 10-12 hours per week (ok… if you’re counting we’re already at 25-32 hours per week).
    • You have to have office hours each week, so that the eager young minds can visit you to ask you the questions they probably could find in the lectures, class announcements, or other class documentation anyhow. At my college, we had 8 hours per week of office hours (33-40 hours per week).
    • At most universities, faculty also have advisees — I had 40-55 advisees assigned to me at any given time (including by the end of my first year). While you don’t have regular contact with them, during ‘advising season’ (i.e., the 6 weeks before registration as well as the first week or two of classes) you end up spending 30mins to an hour ‘helping’ each one. So, that adds 25-50 hours over the course of the semester. The semester is about 16 weeks long, so let’s add 1.5-3 hours per week (oh dear, we’re up to 34.5-43 hours per week).
    • In your first year, committee work tends to be pretty light because they’re ‘helping you to land on your feet’ — so you may only be on 1 or 2 committees the whole year, but those will likely add about an hour of responsibility to your time (especially when combined with routine department meetings, etc.) each week (35.5-44 hours per week).
    • It seems like I’m forgetting something… oh wait … grading — the bane of all of our existence. Now, there are disciplines where the ‘challenge’ of grading consists of the time it takes to write multiple/choice tests and run them through a scantron machine (or post the test online). Unfortunately, the social sciences and liberal arts tend not to be those types of disciplines. None-the-less, if you’re teaching 25 students per class x 3 (or 4), if you’re efficient takes about a half hour to grade each person’s short assignment, add in feedback, and enter the grade into the ‘gradebook’. The norm in the US is to have 4-8 assignments per class plus one or two tests. I tended to assign less… so usually about 4 assignments per class and two tests. That adds on roughly an average of 15-19 hours per week more (realize, there are weeks with no grading and weeks with LOADS of grading). So… we’re now at 50.5-63 hours of work each week.
    • Then comes the research — the stuff we tend to do ‘in our spare time’ — you know, like anytime that school isn’t in session. If we ever hope to be tenured and promoted, we need to produce about 2-3 published journal pieces per year (there is variance there by university and publication type, but that gets too silly to try to explain). Right. So, in the 10-16 weeks that we’re not ‘teaching’ each year, we have to collect data, write, revise, send out, etc. — uh huh…. The reality is that we’re working on projects year round and while we may use our ‘unstructured’ times to do a lot of our writing, each journal article is tough to come by. We’re committing no less than a week’s worth of time just to write the damn thing, let alone collecting data, analyzing it, etc. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the total time commitment to a single piece is about a month’s worth of work (assuming a 40 hour work week). That fills all of that “spare time” y’all seem to think we have AND also addresses the misnomer that university professors have no deadlines.
    • Oh yeah — and for those of us who are trying to build a reputation of expertise within our fields, we travel to conferences (2-4 per year usually) to present papers, we review papers for those conferences as well as journals, etc. All of this is ‘unpaid’ but is really expected not only in terms of service to the profession but enables us to get tenured. That’s added on top of our 50-60 hour work week (before research).

Welcome to year one of your stress-free life as an academic. Oh yeah, and that “good” salary of (on average) about $52,000 per year comes out to $17-20 per hour that we’re getting paid BEFORE taxes. Awesome deal, right? I made more bartending in college than I make with my Ph.D.

Year 2. ‘Piling it On’

Right, so remember that in year one, we were already at 32 weeks a year of 50-60 hours per week of work for the awesome pay of about $20/hour gross. In year 2, your department chair or dean (i.e., your boss) talks to you about the importance of contributing to your college and the whole university through ‘service’ if you want to get tenured and promoted… that they would help you ‘manage’ your commitments (they are lying to you at this point), but that it would be ideal if you involved yourself with at least one student organization and got involved on some university-wide and more departmental committees.

You’ve just added about 3-10 hours worth of work each and every week to your regular work load. Now, hopefully by this time, some of the time you have to spend in course prep goes down a little bit, but you’re probably still being asked to teach different classes (often better classes because you’ve now ‘proven’ yourself) and you discovered that there were things about the ways you were teaching your classes that just didn’t work so you’re redesigning the damn things. Ok, the prep work doesn’t change that much in your second year.

It doesn’t sound like much, but if you happen to prove yourself to be ‘competent’ and affable enough on these committees, you start to get asked to work on side projects, you get encouraged to take on more. And before you know it, you’ve added 15-20 hours more work and honestly, you don’t know how it happened, but you can’t say no. Why? Because they can still fire you for any reason… they don’t even have to tell you why they’ve fired you. As a non-tenured faculty member, you live on a year-to-year contract with no repercussions if they choose not to renew your contract. Don’t make any waves!

Years 3-6. Have you lost your mind?

  By year 3, if things have gone well, you play well with others, and you have adjusted well, then things start to get exciting. You will be approached to take on leadership positions; you will be approached to start doing administrative tasks; you will have the opportunity to really make your case for tenure… oh yeah and you’ll probably be going through mid-tenure review. This is the first point that a group of folks in your department really pay attention to you and ask the question, “would we want to keep this person?”. To get ready, you have to prepare your case… this means putting together a portfolio and building a set of arguments for your contributions to your department, the college, and your profession. You’re now regularly working 80 hours per week, so your effective pay rate comes down to somewhere under $15/hour.

Assuming your mid-tenure review goes well (i.e., they don’t put you on a one-year terminal contract), you still have two more years of this before you begin your tenure review process.

Oh… and if you have to move for any reason… you get to basically start all over again. Usually, you can con them out of a little higher starting salary, and maybe a shortened tenure clock, but you’re still starting over again….

Adding Insult to Injury

So, we come back to the CNBC assertion that being a college professor is the ‘least stressful job’. To that, I say kiss my ass! Not nice? Yeah, being nice, playing by the rules, being erudite, and being smart has gotten us to being in a job we may still love (though by now we’ve gotten rid of our rose colored glasses and often have ‘happy hours’ spent drinking and bitching) but being paid insulting money.

And we have to listen to pundits talk about us like we’re idiot-savants who have no idea what the real world is like.

And for those of us whose research directly translates to the real world (e.g., in my case — persuasion, crisis communication, strategic communication), the so-called professionals look down their overpriced noses at us. That means that even if we did want to move back to the ‘real world’ — we have to basically apologize for our PhD, our time spent training them (Where do they think new professionals come from? Are they hatched?), and kiss their asses for handouts. So, basically until we write our book and ‘become’ a pundit or consultant later in our careers we’re stuck because Americans are scared of smart people.

So, while we may like our students, like our research, and like our colleagues (all of which depends on the day). While we may have unstructured time (because we can be productive without ‘clocking in’). And while most of us either chose this career path when we were young and stupidly idealistic and older and looking for a change — I think I can speak for most of us when I say fuck off with your patronizing understanding of what it means to be a professor in the US.

We know we’re not on the battle lines and most of the time we’re not risking death, but guess what if we do a bad job at our jobs… your workforce is screwed. We have to battle against bad parenting, stupid emerging social norms, a primary/ secondary education system that is broken, and try to reach people at the most annoyingly self-absorbed time in their psychological and social development. All while being paid $12-20/ hour in real wages

Oh yeah and CNBC — learn to do some damn research you wankers!

* Just a small addition at the end*

Thanks for the conversation — even if you are just bitching because you think I suck 😉 … In particular, thanks to those folks who have shared their experiences (both positive and negative) in academia. Like a lot of conversations that happen in happy hour there are people calling bullshit, people adding their own experiences, people asking for reality checks, and I think it’s productive.

I’ve added some links to some research and information that folks might find useful about student debt, access to good jobs, job satisfaction, and intent to leave academia. I figured some of you might want quick access to additional information. Have more links to relevant points — feel free to let me know, I’ll add them.

Just a reminder — try to think about what/how you would say stuff to people face-to-face. Yes — this is how I talk and would talk to most of you in a social setting. I think everyone would appreciate the same courtesy.

**And since too many people have gotten so damn hung up on the fact that being exceptionally bright (especially in comparison to average folks) is offensive, I tweaked it because I was just annoyed with the whining about it… ffs…. who was planning on the rant going a bit viral?


377 thoughts on “The Least Stressful Job for 2013? A Real Look at Being a Professor in the US

  1. I’m not sure the CNBC piece deserved all this attention. Jobs 1 through 10 had a paragraph or two describing said job’s stress and each one ended with a punchline.

    Times are tight, defenses are high and unearned privilege ia sought after and abused by us all. Institutions of higher ed, among others are privileged without purpose for too much of the time. The cliques of grade school follow us well into our PhDs, perhaps to death.

    I know tenured faculty taking a full salary to play golf all week. I also know baby docs with passion being driven by their tenured seniors beyond repair. So entitlements can be enjoyed. Their passion will soon be gone. Left to be a shell of cynicism with no other choice but to join the culture of privilege and play the game, elbows out. This is OUR culture, not just in higher-ed. You folks griping… settle down. You are we. We have seen the enemy and they are us. Each is concerned about the splinters in the eyes of others, ignoring the plank in their own. Id say there is enough stress to go around and no one is spared.

    It doesn’t have to be this way, there is hope. Defensiveness isn’t going to solve much. Only honesty and compassion.

    Good luck to each of us. Persevere and there is a reward.


    • You’re probably right that the CNBC list didn’t deserve this kind of attention. I ranted, it has seemed to strike a cord… such is the weird world of the internet :).

      I also think you’re right that honesty and compassion are the best defenses against it. However, I think we do have a challenge in academia about being honest, being good enough to each other, and more broadly in the US about being compassionate towards others.


  2. Those of us not lucky enough to have the magic acronym after our name and have been teaching college for almost a decade at $34K/year with no hope of tenure and no permanent positions understand the article very clearly. We are still the grunts in our departments because many of the senior PhD’s see themselves as too important to teach entry level classes, but they still get paid more. If one were in public education, one would have been tenured in four years and making substantially more. But one stays because, after all, it IS a job, and the economy dictates we suck it up and carry on while very often carrying the load for the PhD’s because they are also too important for committee work.


    • I forgot…and add to that the heart attacks from the stress of not being able to take the time off when sick, because there is NO sick leave and having your job threatened because you had to have open heart surgery brought about by stress induced heart attacks…


      • That’s fairly consistent across all academics… as a couple of folks pointed out in earlier comments — not only is the stress likely to bring on health issues (especially when you don’t have any stability) but also we don’t really get sick days unless we cancel classes.

        It sounds like the institution you’ve worked for is particularly terrible to their lecturers… mine may have worked us all to the point of disease and injury, but they were at least humane about it when we had to be out….


    • I definitely understand the ‘charm’ of being a lecturer (assuming you’re on a year-to-year contract) and know that lecturers get over used on lower division classes, etc. I also know that the culture at some schools is better than others for how the permanent faculty treat their less permanent colleagues. However, I’m actually quite surprised that you’re called to be on a lot of committees. I know that the lecturers at my old university did sometimes serve on dept. committees — mostly out of the kindness of their heart, but you have no idea how much we appreciated them doing it because it meant that instead of 7 or 8 committees, I was only serving on 6.

      And yeah – service classes (i.e., the lower division ones) are less fun to teach and I know they get dumped on lecturers and adjuncts most often.


  3. Hi Dan,

    The following comments may be hyperlinking a bit too much away from the topic. But you seem to be a very forward-looking young person, so I hope the others wouldn’t mind me sharing with you some points.

    • Time is on your side.
    • Consider Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” as an example framework you might find useful.
    • Be wary of your financial management. “Debt”, or your using other people’s money, can either be good or bad. It is “good” when you use it as a tool for greater future returns. It is “bad” when all you spend it for just goes into the black hole.
    • Higher education and employment opportunities are “horses for courses”. Evolve your academic interest. Political Science is as good as any other subject matter as long as it fits your psyche. When you finish your degree, opportunities will come. Be it further education or employment. “Life of the mind”, as I interpret what you meant, is all around us, not just in an academic environment.
    • Whatever career you choose is just a means to an end. Find what “end” is meaningful for you. (A caveat here is that looking for it may be a lifelong endeavour. However, the “looking” itself maybe all you need).
    • And above all, enjoy life! (At then of the day, life is a 50-50 proposition. Either you choose to do something or not.)


  4. I think it might not be so bad if University was as difficult to get into in the U.S., as it is in Europe. In the status quo, most people can get into college and pay for it with loans and government money that mean very little to them. This contributes directly to the number of hours professors spend grading and advising and indirectly to all the rest while subsequently taking time away from more valuable activities such as meaningful conversations with students and writing. The free market would certainly balance all of this out but would likely devastate our (rightfully) valued liberal arts tradition. In any case, more stringent standards of admission (like those employed by European countries such as France) would certainly help to lighten the load on professors.


    • I would tend to agree. I think that there are a lot of kids in our colleges and universities that are frankly wasting money. They’re folks who would do so much better learning a skilled trade (and frankly would prefer it as well).

      Yet, our assumption and default these days is to prefer traditional college for everyone and I think it’s a little silly. That would be tough to do in the US with the modern American parent who think their child poops roses as well 😉 and never realistically assesses their kids nor actually asks them what they want.

      But, I’m all for raising academic standards, but I also wish if we did that we would also better fund college education like many (if not most) European nations do as well. It may be difficult to get in, but you’ve earned the right not to have a mortgage on your brain once you get there.


    • What are the “stringent standards of admission” in France? 98% of standard-section high school grads are accepted into secondary-ed institutions:
      I find the whole “university is really exclusive and selective in Europe” myth really perplexing. It’s not; the main difference is that there is actually something resembling education happening at the primary and secondary levels in Europe (which, as far as I can tell, doesn’t really happen on the other side of the Atlantic)!


      • Nice point — based on stories from friends, I really only know about some tougher admissions requirements in Denmark and Germany … but even that I don’t have figures for… so thanks for bringing that in.


    • I’m not sure where this idea comes from that Europe is better. Profs in France (the university system I know best) make much less than their US counterparts and admissions are open at all public universities except the half-dozen “grandes ecoles.” So yes, only 100 or so are admitted to the top engineering school each year, but anyone who passed the high school leaving exam can go to their local university campus.


    • That’s an interesting list — certainly and clearly an argument for working at Ivy League and R1 institutions. I don’t think that it gives the realistic salary expectations for most people across different disciplines at most universities. The Baylor source that I linked ( probably needs to be updated for the last 4 years of cost of living increases, but to me when I compare these lists, I see the stark differences between the salary issue at the major institutions and most institutions. It’s certainly a good financial argument though for going to the big universities :).


    • Averages are misleading. Median would be more appropriate. It doesn’t say on the page if administrative types were included – many are considered faculty – like Deans, Chairs, and university Presidents. Salaries for those faculty with administration duties tend to be substantially higher than the typical faculty member, and you have the few old tenured professors who, because they have been there so long, do make higher salaries. But those few really skew the numbers.

      I went to grad school at two of the major universities. While the faculty salaries were higher than at the state school I attended as an undergrad, salaries for even the full professors I knew were nowhere near that high. Making even $150K as an established, well published tenured professor in my field (Biology) would be considered a GREAT salary, far above average.


  5. I absolutely loved your post! I am inspired to throw in my 2cents. While I take no offense to your comment that education is broken, I do believe that we’re still huffing and puffing to stay in the fighting ring. Knocked down by corporate take over of textbooks, testing practices, massive budget reductions, personnel cuts, and public antipathy, we struggle back onto our feet with bursts of creative inspiration. All of us in the education world, K-Ph.D, are struggling to maintain public education against tremendous odds. The frightening prospect of complete privatization and commodification of knowledge attainment is upon us, particularly with online formats. Thank you for taking so much time to fully explain what we do. It is vital that the public understands our work, and why we must fight to maintain public education in a society that calls itself democratic.
    My spouse also wanted me to add that she has NEVER, in the four different industries in which she has worked herself, seen anyone so heavily scrutinized by so many people as she has seen in my retention and tenure process. Watching what I do, she thinks its the most stressful job she has ever seen, and that is after working in journalism, engineering, architecture and the restaurant industry. She would love me to change careers to something less anxiety producing.


    • Emilia —

      Thanks so much for the comment. Being an optimist, I hope the system that it can be fixed (from K-PhD). I just think the challenge is exactly this kind of misunderstanding and dismissal of our work.

      There are a lot of political theorists (e.g., Thomas Jefferson) who make the argument that a free society only exists with an educated populace. That’s really hard to achieve when the faculty are stretched so thin, frustrated, and stuck in combat not only with political/corporate influences in the education process but also public opinion devaluing what we do.

      Finland, as a counter example, treats education and educators as valuable and their learning outcomes are among the best in the world. It’s not that Finnish teachers and professors are paid absurdly well (though their pay rates are quite nice) nor that everyone kisses their asses, but they are treated with dignity and respect and the institution of education there seems to be treated as though it’s fundamentally valuable.

      Honestly, that’s what I would like here.

      As to your wife’s reaction to the tenure process… yeah… it’s a beast. I’ve seen peoples’ tenure applications go south for a lot of reasons — many of them had little to do with the quality of contributions the faculty member made to their institution.


  6. Honestly, this is ridiculous. I work in a field completely unlike university professors, and all of the points made here of things you have to ‘overcome’ are true for any other profession, if not more so. Most every profession requires higher education, most come out with high amounts of debt and fewer job prospects than ever. Most al jobs require extra hours above and beyond what we are getting paid for on paper, and EVERYONE starts with a salary not much more than babysitting. The differences here are that YOU have the opportunity to be tenured, whereas most of the rest of us, for the rest of our careers could be let go at any time, with no notice, no explanation. You seem to think this is cruel and unusual when the actuality is that even if I am one day an owner or partner of a firm, I could be fired at any time. You, on the other hand would not have the responsibility of marketing your college, collecting billing before you can be paid, or risk getting sued just trying to do your job. All of us have bosses with unrealistic expectations. All of us are required to keep ‘office hours’ with not nearly the amount of flexibility you enjoy year round. I really have no vested interest here is disproving your point, but the way I see it, you’ve proved it yourself.


    • Thanks for the contribution — like I’ve said… the point isn’t that we’re the only profession with stress and annoyances, but we’re a profession that is often targeted for disdain and disrespect. Nothing about our annoyances and challenges takes away from the challenges of working in different industries or professions.

      This isn’t a competition about whose life sucks the most. It’s about trying to make our own professions better AND frankly being annoyed that folks think it’s ok to be dismissive of us (or frankly any particular profession).


    • Congratulations on missing the point by such a margin that your jibe is now stuck in the Moon…

      This is not about the mewling of a privileged academic, but a counter to other idiots mewling about how academics are privileged.

      If you want to ask anyone if scholars have a stress-free job, try asking my GP…


    • I would disagree, actually, that we aren’t responsible for marketing our universities; we do that everytime we conference and everytime we publish. And there have been LOTS of instances – for untenured and tenured faculty alike – who have been fired (yes, fired) and/or denied tenure on the basis of improper representation. Not all faculty have free license to do/act/be whomever they want, and we are always associated with our universities so Im sorry, but you’re wrong (and don’t get me started on how we must manage ourselves and/or anonymize ourselves on social media for this reason). Two, it’s also incorrect that we don’t risk getting sued; there are all kinds of FERPA violations to account for, Internal Review Board regulations, amongst other legal issues. And let’s not forget about students with psychological/emotional issues on top of a culture of entitlement where I hear from PARENTS should students not “like” a grade they received or how something is functioning. So while I agree with the other replies that you’ve missed the point, you’ve also grossly mischaracterized the profession just as the original Forbes author has.


      • All great points — the reality that universities recruit students and other faculty based on the credentials of their existing faculty is something that is often ignored. As “my” (i.e., generic professor) reputation in my field improves, it’s also a coup for my university. As I’m able to bring money in, that elevates my university’s financial profile.

        And yes — there are substantial risks at a lot of universities regarding faculty ‘behavior’. I’ve just not applied to universities where there was a behavior code including things like ‘body art’. I have friends at institutions whose research agendas and identities have to remain kind of undercover because they violate ‘moral’ codes associated with the institutions.

        Oh — and the lawsuit risks. Not only is the faculty member at risk for FERPA violations, but should the faculty member rock the boat because they see FERPA violations elsewhere in the university… yeah, they’re unlikely to stay long.

        And then the parents… I’m going to have to save that for its own blog post because parents are reason #2 why I never considered a career in secondary education — yet I’m increasingly talking to parents about their kids during advising sessions (with their kid handing me their cell phone so I can talk to mommy), getting ‘downlow’ emails from parents just checking up on their kids, to emails asking me to reconsider allowing some dorknugget to turn in his paper 3 weeks after the semester ended (I just ignored it and forwarded it to my department chair… figured that really wasn’t my responsibility any more). Parents are not only ruining their children, but making our lives immeasurably worse these days.


  7. Hi Audra,
    Great article, it really nails down some of the points I think those outside of higher education miss or forget about.

    One think I have to say though coming from a European university is how great the tenure track system appears (at least from where I stand). It gives young professors a career path they can at least aspire to. Something sorely lacking here in Europe.


    • Hi Tom —

      Thanks for the perspective.

      Tenure is a challenge … I think there are some very useful things about it, given the academic endeavor. I don’t even mind that it takes a long time to earn. I do think that the politics and lack of objective standards for meeting tenure requirements here (along with a lack of post tenure review in most institutions) do make it a tough one to get right.



  8. I’ve found your website amusing and informative so far, and agree that this CNBC article is quite nonsensical in its conclusion. However, I really don’t find myself at all empathetic to the struggles of academics, either.

    In particular, lately I’ve read numerous rants from newly-minted PhDs from various, but often lower-tier, institutions, who studied fields that are largely irrelevant to the rest of the world. They are shocked and embittered because comfy, high-paying, respectful jobs aren’t lined up for them. What injustice! Their fancy title and superior minds most certainly deserve better!

    This is nonsense. Shouldn’t a smart person – a prospective researcher no less! – have the ability to look into job prospects prior to embarking down that road? Following one’s passions and learning for learning’s sake are wonderful things, but the assumption that doing so in a fancy, official, academic context should automatically yield a great job is silly. Perhaps they’d have been better off becoming a dentist, working a few days a week, and spending their copious spare time pursuing true passions.

    Granted, as a computer science PhD student at a good school, the world’s practically my oyster at this time, so I can sit here judgementally and know all the while that I have great job and financial prospects for the foreseeable future. But, you know what? I knew that happy coincidence going on.


    • LOL — I’m glad I can amuse … ranting usually amuses me so if I can drag someone else along with it, cool.

      I’m torn because a big part of me agrees with you, yet in thinking of those fields that are often viewed as ‘less relevant’… I can’t say that I’d want them to go away. I’m kind of practical, so while I love political philosophy, I wanted to have life options so I went with something in social science that I felt would be more practical. As a result, I don’t find it particularly hard to find a job nor keep a job either (crises seem to happen a lot these days… it makes me kinda useful 🙂 ).

      But, like I said I’m torn because the other side of it is the argument that I’ve heard suggesting that it was stupid for those of us coming from lower SES backgrounds to pursue a PhD at all (let alone in one of the ‘fuzzier’ areas of study) because we were putting ourselves in such a financial hole. That’s absolutely and objectively true, yet it sucks as well. For me, since I’m in the midst of making some life changes (new continents and all) I’m spending the next couple of months ranting about stuff and figuring out what I’m going to be when I grow up :). However, I also have a working partner (in the real world and ironically enough a computer engineer) and have the luxury to make a new set of choices.

      A friend of mine brought up a great point in some happy hour discussion at some point (everyone is smarter when beer’s involved, right?) that it seems irresponsible that PhD programs are pumping out as many newly minted PhD’s as they are given the lack of access to jobs. The article I linked about the job market was focusing on some of the more “practical” of majors, but it’s certainly true about those that promote less tangible skills. So, is it the fault of the 23-25 year old chasing their intellectual love? Is it the fault of the academic institutions who just want their tuition dollars with little to no regard with the inundation of the market with new PhD’s? Probably a little bit of both.


    • I think you’re missing an important detail. Many of us who went in for PhDs in fields that were “irrelevant” did so with the promise of cushy tenure track jobs. While we were marching down the path to the promise land, the bubble burst and many of us were left wondering whether we should bother finishing the degree or quitting and getting a “real” job.

      I got lucky because I realized I didn’t want to teach college students and managed to find my calling at the secondary level. I have friends, however, who have gone from adjunct to adjunct with no security at all.

      So just because you happened to choose a field that is “relevant” doesn’t give you the right to look down your nose at people in the humanities (I am sure that is who you mean). Humanities may be fuzzy, but the world would not turn without people who can think, write, and speak intelligently. I daresay you wouldn’t have a field as computer science is just a fancier form of linguistics.


      • I just wanted to respond to Steve’s comment about why someone would choose a field like academia. For five years after college, I worked in offices. My hours were basically nine to five, the work was not hard (it was insultingly easy and incredibly boring most of the time), and I worked with reasonably nice people. I hated the jobs. I felt like my mind was stagnating, and day after day conversations were either gossip or about last night’s TV shows. For a brief period in one job, three of us were English majors, and started an informal reading circle so we had other things to talk about during down times. After my two colleagues left for greener pastures, I started taking night courses just to exercise my mind. I did not intend to go into academia.

        This type of thing went on for two more years until I finally went back to school full time to finish the M.A. As I learned more about the life of an academic – the pressure to publish, the lack of full time jobs with benefits, the long hours grading into the wee hours of the morning – I still had no desire to continue. I had two more jobs, one of which was actually somewhat satisfying and paid more than I had earned in my life to that point (or since), but the office politics and lack of intellectual stimulation got to me. At the age of 35, I went back to school for my Ph.D. I knew that the job market had gotten worse, and that I would acrue debt I would probably not pay off before I retired. The academic world was the only place I ever felt comfortable or stimulated intellectually, and that became more important to me than money, job propects, or even job security.

        I do not have a tenure track position. I am now 50, and will probably not get one as my Ph.D is ten years old, and I am not considered fresh enough by most hiring committees. Do I regret the choice? No. Despite the professional setbacks, I enjoy teaching, and, for all its faults and stresses, I enjoy academic life. I don’t consider myself smarter everyone else, but I do enjoy intellectual discussions about things few other people find interesting. There are few choices for people who want to be nurtured and respected as intellectuals, and academia is the primary one. I find it telling that so many people want to get Ph.Ds despite a dwindling job market for tenure track positions in most fields. I don’t want to get into a contest about whose jobs is stressful or difficult, but it would be nice if people outside academia respected what we do and understood that academia is a difficult life for most of us.


      • And that’s why I don’t like the thought of majors, classes, and the amazing faculty who teach them going away and leaving just the “practical” folks behind… we would lose a big part of what it means to be educated. It’s especially important now as we face kids whose critical thinking and writing skills are lower than they ever have been that these majors thrive.

        That’s why I think it’s still irresponsible for loads of PhD’s to be turned out (more than the academic market could possibly sustain) in all fields — exactly what you were made to believe (what I think we all believed)… that there was the promised land of milk and honey for all the smart folks who were willing to work hard. There are few places where that myth of the American dream crushed harder than academia because I think there are few places where the possibilities of that dream are elevated as high.

        So, while I personally made choices that I saw as giving me the most flexibility while still letting me be in a field I actually enjoyed and I would always encourage people to be thinking in that direction — to have us all be computer folks seems not only impractical but incredibly boring.


      • Mary,

        I think you’ve hit the nail on the head as to why a lot of folks chose academia (regardless of when we came to it). That’s why I think we realize early that we’re taking the “vow of academic poverty” and we’re ok with it. But like you also said – it’s not about whose life is harder, but it’s about the sheer lack of respect we get because we value intellectual pursuits, we value contributing to the collective knowledge base, and we value watching our students grow and develop as human beings.


    • I often hear the argument Steve makes (“irrelevant topics”) and frankly, it strikes me as flawed and short-sighted every time. Irrelevant by which standard? Irrelevant to whom? This logic argues that studying philosophy, or religion, or some other non-applied topic amounts to pompous self-indulgence. That it doesn’t “contribute” to society or the job market. STEM disciplines give you applied skills, the argument goes, and these are more valuable than the “fuzzy” abilities you gain in the humanities.

      These are all contingent evaluative conclusions. Who and what defines what is most valuable? The market? And if so, does that mean it’s right? that the standard is true or objective? Of course not.
      Furthermore, to continue on the “value” idea, humanities scholars have skills that are just as applied and valuable as others, and that are sadly in short supply nowadays: excellent analytical ability, critical thinking, breadth of cultural knowledge, research and *writing* skills (yes, good writing, an ability rare enough these days that finding it makes me want to kiss my computer screen).

      I could go on, but most of all, I would suggest that Steve misunderstands what humanities PhDs are saying. None of us “expect cushy jobs” – that’s absurd. And to say that humanities PhDs should have known better comes across as plain smug. What we lament is the lack of value placed on the humanities in the growing business-like model of universities – the assertion that being a dentist would be more worthwhile than mastering and teaching life-long skills like critical thinking, advanced writing, comparative cultural understandings and more. All so that we could fix someone’s teeth.Mmmmm, saliva.


      • Thanks so much for your comment — (btw, I deleted the duplicate one, silly post buttons). You’re absolutely right about the intangible skills that the humanities (and typically social sciences) promote as well as our need for them.

        A world full of only computer science folks, dentists, and engineers would be a bit of a boring world, wouldn’t it? 🙂


  9. What a dumb argument. Any occupation or endeavor can be colored either high or low stress depending on, amongst other things, how one defines “stress.” As a veteran of the war in Iraq who happens to be working on his PhD at an R1 university I can attest that stress exists anywhere there is competition, limited resources, and an achievement norm. Is not a matter of what careers are more stressful, but rather that all careers come with a unique set of stresses, stressors, rewards, and benefits. Trying to play the “which career is more stressful” game would be an exercise in futility because it is relative to the person “feeling the stress” and/or “reaping the rewards” from a particular career. I think a more productive way to think about this is from an “eye of the beholder” perspective. Each person in each career has a “fulfillment to stress ratio.” Calculating this will help some to realize that they are willing to live with the stresses that being a professor entails because they derive a sense of meaning, purpose, and / or happiness that offsets the stress, where others may find this payoff inequitable. Who cares which career is more or less stressful – the real question we should be asking is which makes us more fulfilled.


    • I agree that silly evaluations of whether or not a job is “stressful” or not misses the point and fails to treat people with the fundamental respect that everyone deserves. That’s also why I hate the “whose job is tougher” argument (ok… I play this for fun with my friends, but we’re not serious about it).

      The job satisfaction measure that you’re talking about is certainly an important one. For academics, job satisfaction seems to be a bit of a tenuous thread that largely depends on the particulars of their organizational environment (like in most jobs to be honest). I know that the faculty in my R1 PhD program were great at talking about a lot of aspects of faculty life, but they never really talked about the things that truly made their days great and horrible. I have no doubt that when they were out with their peers, they did… but we didn’t get a lot of that.

      So when it comes to the fulfillment ratio that you’re talking about, I think most academics feel a lot of fulfillment, especially compared to the stressors. However, I also see a lot of my friends and colleagues getting increasingly frustrated at changes in higher education that take away from the stuff we find genuinely fulfilling (usually student interactions and research) and placing a lot more of our time on the stuff that very few people actually like (university service and administrative work). This seems to be more pronounced as you move further away from research institutions.

      Thanks for the evaluative mechanism… I think it’s a useful one.


  10. Dear Audra,

    First, I appreciate your admonition to speak politely. Tossing that admonition back to the author for writing “I think I can speak for most of us when I say fuck off with your patronizing understanding of what it means to be a professor in the US” shouldn’t be necessary.

    Second, academics complaining about working 80 to 100+ hour weeks gets you zero sympathy from those of us who do (or have done) the same in industry without the benefit of tenure, collegial workplace, sympathetic managers & customers. I’m not saying don’t complain, just don’t expect any sympathy.

    Third, do away with tenure. The rest of us, outside the Ivory Tower, don’t enjoy lifetime employment. Don’t perform? Boot, meet ass, ass, meet curb. I’ll bet my master’s degree that in the course of your Ph. D. work you know – KNOW – academics who should be gone. The theory of the academic meritocracy should be made fact.


    • Hi Mark,

      I said to be nice to each other — that’s a very different thing than being polite. Being generically polite in today’s society forces unhealthy conformity, false niceness, and frankly doesn’t make for a very controversial read. If people are offended by naughty language, they can go elsewhere.

      I also think that most of us in academia treat people in industry with a hell of a lot more respect than we get in return. Within the broad communication industry, I have personally seen so many “professionals” being snide jerks to academics simply because we’re academics and not working in industry. I’ve never seen academics treating folks in industry like they were dirt merely for being in industry. Anyone who works silly work weeks (anything over 40 hours on a regular basis) should deserve our empathy because it’s inhumane. It’s part of an American work style that is unhealthy and completely inappropriate.

      LOL — you romanticize the regular working world. Surely you’ve seen public/government service where you can’t hardly pry someone out of their jobs regardless of whether they perform well or not. And as far as industry goes? You’re going to tell me with a straight face that there isn’t dead weight? C’mon there layers of middle management who are dead weight. Of course I know academics who are slackers. I know people in government who are slackers. I know people in industry who are slackers.

      I also think that American labor laws are a joke. There is post-tenure review in most other countries (I’m a total fan of post-tenure review). However, tenure lets us say and do things that aren’t popular. That’s one of the small benefits we get out of sacrificing pay for tenure. In industry it’s very hard to get out of a group think mode if your corporate culture is restrictive. Tenure allows faculty to critique, research, and evaluate issues and problems that are going to cause ripple effects.

      Tenure is hard to get and that’s alright. But, it’s also used as a carrot to tempt and a club to beat us with and that’s not so much alright. So, most of those people in the Master’s and PhD programs who were pretty worthless… they don’t get tenure. Unfortunately, a lot of very good people also don’t because we haven’t yet managed to implement clear standards for ‘objective’ evaluation.


  11. I don’t think being in academia it is just about being smarter, how smart is to be exploited by the system? We have been more stubborn and maybe more romantic and work those $12 /hour jobs because we feel free and inspired by our surroundings. And this you say is true now but not so 40 years ago I know older faculty who have been working for 30 years at a University and make 150000 a year and take sabbaticals every 10 years that is one year of paid vacation or time to explore new fields…. I would not argue that these people have a sweet career….at least I can think of a couple of jobs that suck more than this. On the other hand what you say is absolutely true… it used to be a sweet deal and now academia is left for the romantics and altruistic minded that think not of their own income but of the development of new generations. I would not necessarily say academia is for the most smart people of the world.


    • LOL — fair enough… if we say smart = common sense/practical, I think a lot of us probably fail in that regard! 🙂

      And yeah — the waters seem to be changing in academia and not for the better.

      Thanks for the thoughts.


    • Really?

      Have you ever heard of a metaphor? Seriously. I also didn’t mean that the US government would literally take a pound of flesh from us if we didn’t pay back our student loans — hmmm… actually that would be quite preferable to the 20 year payment plan. Of the things to worry about… the metaphor probably isn’t it.

      But, the reason I happened to choose that particular metaphor is because indentured servitude was a form of debt bondage (and as your own link says born of a need for cheap labor… at around $12-15 per hour worked, we’re pretty darned cheap labor for our qualifications and abilities) — where the ‘young’ (and likely naive) worker was imported from England and forced to work for several years to pay off the debt. For those who survive (again, metaphorically because most of us don’t die because of the job… though there is increasing evidence of health-issues associated with those of us in this profession) — we earn a modest life as a ‘freeman’ in our society. Thus the metaphor.

      And no kidding, that’s mostly where the metaphor ends … of course the history of indentured servants in the US was darker and more brutish with many forced into it, ‘sold’ by their parents, and their lives completely shit.

      But this conversation about metaphors is a bit of a red herring. It’s a metaphor made for rhetorical effect not because I think any of us are living under colonial conditions, let alone the exact same kinds of conditions. I do, however, think that many of us have life choices reduced by the debt. I do think that in today’s economy most junior faculty are afraid to lose their tenure track jobs because we know the job market is shitty — even if we are in growing fields/ subfields. We also know that our degrees are undervalued in the private sector. That means that we have the potential to be exploited laborers with our administrations often taking advantage of the fact that we are on year-to-year contracts until we’re tenured. That also means that we kind of have to shut up and put up with it. Most of us have seen colleagues (and often friends) forced out because they had the audacity to speak up. So, while our exploitation is nothing compared to today’s migrant farm worker (probably a more exact application of the metaphor), for example, it’s still exploitation and worth talking about.

      So, as a literary figure of speech asserting that, on some point, there is a comparison to be made in order to set the tone for my opinion of many of the challenges that young faculty face in academia, I’m going to say that I’m pretty spot on. If you don’t see exploitation in academia then you live in a fortunate world (and I can’t believe I’m having to make Marxist arguments here nor defending a figure of speech… but c’est la vie). I’m not suggesting our exploitation is worse than others, but I feel like it’s worth talking about and thus I feel like it was an apt metaphor.


    • You seem to have taken the author’s statement quite literal. As a phd student, it may not be a true analogy, but it’s damn close.

      Great article.


  12. Such a great post! It just boggles the mind to think that this misconception about academia still persists. I wrote a similar post in regards to K-12 education, and good lord the vitriol I received. People accused me of exaggerating how many hours a new teacher actually works. Nope, that’s what it is people. Direct the horror to the poor pay and the high demands, not the truth.

    That whole ranking list is complete crap though. Seriously, “librarian” as one of the least stressful jobs? Um, not public libraries, which, since we’ve been cutting back on social services, have become the go to place for kids who have nowhere to go after school and anyone in dire need of the internet. And hairdresser? Standing on your feet all day with a pretty much guarantee of carpal tunnel after thirty years? I don’t know much about being a seamstress/tailor, but I would imagine that if you’re in business for yourself, you spend your “off time” networking, marketing, doing the accounting, managing employees and worrying about your business’ feasibility.

    This sounds like it was written by someone who is stuck in a corporate job and dreams of a “flexible” work life above all else, and yet has no experience with the responsibilities that come with that flexibility.

    I agree with the comments here about the many problems in academia today (and the joys), and really appreciate the conversation this post has started. So…thanks!


    • Thanks for the perspective from the K-12 world. I know that when my primary/secondary teacher friends and I get together we all have ‘whose life sucks worse’ arguments and I kind of have to grudgingly grant them the win there because they have to deal with more parents and don’t have as much flexibility in teaching/ assessment. 🙂

      But in a more meaningful way — you’re quite right, classifying people and professions in such ridiculously superficial ways is really annoying. I’m pretty confident that my hair stylist would have a few choice words for CNBC as she has to cope with…. the public … (que the music of doom) on a daily basis on top of the physical demands for a lady with some back problems.

      In a more socially dangerous way, I also think these kinds of lists serve to build more nasty social judgment based on profession. They reinforce the primacy of “real” work — like day trading 😉 while denigrating the stuff that keeps society rolling. I think if you’re able and do contribute to society in some way you should be valued. I don’t expect everyone to make the same money, but I do expect people to be treated with dignity unless they’re just jerks.

      Like a lot of the more thoughtless comments people make suggest (and honestly, this conversation’s been remarkably civil… I haven’t even had to delete any comments because they were being assholes, which is saying something compared to a lot of the comment boards I read) – it seems like we’re so quick to assume the most negative about people, so afraid of the conflict that might arise if someone says something that isn’t on an even keel and all nicey-nice, and so willing to just react instead of thinking that we forget that lots of people have lots of struggles.


      • Well said, all around. I don’t really see the point in making judgments between professions, either. But it seems that’s what happens time and again in any “helping” profession, where professionals with a high degree of training are repeatedly asked to work more hours at a low salary just because they have the gall to care. It’s no wonder that this list comes from a business publication, as it seems anything to do with assessing the value of education on a societal level these days stems from that world (and, ultimately, gets a lot a wrong). It’s impossible to say what “real” work is, and it’s troubling that the designation is so often made by salary. Is a parent who stays home not doing real work? Is a social worker who apparently doesn’t deserve to do much better than barely live above the poverty line not doing real work? Is the part-time freelancer who earns a good salary but only works twenty hours a week not doing real work? What are the criterion?

        I’m glad the comments have been civil. Honestly, I hesitated to even write a comment because I 1) feared the retribution 2) know I get so sucked into these chains, once I’m in and fighting, I’m never out. Why does the online medium do this to us?!


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